Hallelujah, `Saved!' is fundamentally fun

June 11, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Set in Baltimore County (but filmed in Vancouver), Saved! is the audacious feel-good satire of 2004. It's an uproarious mixture of teen romantic comedy and clique flick, played out in fundamentalist American Eagle Christian High School. First-time director Brian Dannelly savages an extremist milieu but displays affection even for its zealots. His sweet-and-sour sense of humor ranks with Michael Ritchie's in the classic teen beauty- pageant parody Smile (1975).

Saved! has no sympathy for any sect that reduces morality to small-minded behavior. The movie is about breaking out of closed belief systems - bulging out, actually, since the heroine, Mary (Jena Malone), questions her faith after she gets pregnant.

Mary beds her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), just one time, possessed by an evangelical impulse to prove to him that he isn't gay. It doesn't work. Dean's parents stumble onto his homosexual porn mag and send him to a rescue center for "de-gay-ification." Mary expects Jesus to recognize her sacrifice and make her virginal again. So she experiences being with child as a betrayal.

Saved! tells how she weathers her mostly secret pregnancy alone, under the malicious eyes of her former best friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), head of the coterie and girls group known as the "Christian Jewels." What really triggers their split is a teen heartthrob, Patrick (Patrick Fugit), an ace Christian skateboarder and son of the school principal, Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan).

Patrick obviously favors Mary; Hilary Faye, swift on the attack, organizes a prayer circle for "Mary's gay boyfriend." Mary, knowing she did everything she could to "cure" Dean, hands back her Christian Jewels brooch. She soon finds new friends: smoking, cussing Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the only Jewish girl in school; and Cassandra's new beau, Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin), who's sick of being his sister's personal charity case.

After a square travesty like Raising Helen, with its hunky Lutheran minister, Pastor Dan, it's a relief to see a hip and heartfelt comedy like Saved! It uses the name Pastor Skip to signal that the man tries too hard to be wholesomely hip. And it has the wit to fill out the characterization with slang that is so five years ago. When a Christian Jewel offers to help Mary by shooting her, Pastor Skip says, "I was thinking of something a little less `gangsta.'"

Saved! also has the humanity to make us care about its mock soap opera questions. Will Pastor Skip own up to the bankruptcy of his marriage and succumb to the charms of Mary's mom, Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker)? Will Lillian support Mary once she realizes her daughter isn't merely "stress-eating?" Will "the heathens" outwit the Christian Jewels? And will Mary and Patrick prove that authentic young love conquers all? Thanks to Dannelly's skill with the performers, you want them all to do the right thing.

The director rouses furious laughter from the looking-glass absurdity of the religious ultra-right, whether Mary is hoping that she has a cancer instead of a fetus, or Hilary Faye is coining the phrase, "You're not born a gay, you're born again." But what makes the movie stick is Dannelly's respect for his characters and knack for igniting his actors.

Moore has so much energy she's a fidgety, squiggly sight gag, and Parker sublimely performs her specialty: conjuring a hint of clarity within a mental fog. Fugit acts hale and charming without any ingratiating excess, as does Donovan, who for the first time exudes a twinkling resemblance to Harrison Ford. Amurri, a firecracker even when she isn't blowing smoke, gets a startling chemistry going with an astonishingly restrained and genuine Culkin. And Malone brings it all together with her ticklish sanity and touching emotional translucence.

The non-nuclear family hug at the end may be a tad glib, but up till then, this movie proves the eye-opening, redemptive power of comic art. Ecumenical audiences truly will feel saved.

Saved!

Starring Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Heather Matarazzo and Eva Amurri

Directed by Brian Dannelly

Rated PG-13

Released by MGM/UA

Time 92 minutes

Sun Score ****

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